Anxiety can be a real problem for many grown-ups with ASD Level 1 [High-Functioning Autism], and can affect the individual psychologically and physically. Anxiety can happen for a range of reasons, and adults on the autism spectrum vary in their ability to cope with it.
Emotions are abstract. To understand emotion you need an imagination. One of the areas of difficulty for many ASD adults is not being able to imagine things. Thus, understanding emotions can be difficult for them.
Anxiety can affect both the mind and the body, and produce a range of symptoms. The psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety are closely linked and can lead to a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
The psychological symptoms of anxiety are:
- becoming preoccupied with or obsessive about one subject
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty sleeping
- easily losing patience
- thinking constantly about the worst outcome
The physical symptoms include:
- excessive thirst
- frequent urinating
- loose bowel movements
- muscle aches
- periods of having gas
- periods of intensely pounding heart
- stomach upset
If you do experience any of these symptoms, it is important to also get medical advice to rule out other medical conditions.
Strategies for Managing Anxiety—
Once you understand anxiety and have identified the situations that make you anxious, you can then take steps to cope with it:
1. Consider carrying a reminder card— Sounds rather silly, I know. But many adults on the spectrum carry a card around with them to remind themselves of what they need to do if they start feeling anxious. You can also use a stress scale whenever you find something particularly stressful (e.g., “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most stressful, this current situation is only about a 4”).
2. Find some peace and quite— Any activities that are pleasant and calming (e.g., taking a bath, listening to relaxing music, aromatherapy, playing on a computer, etc.) help reduce anxiety. Some ASD adults find lights or running water to be particularly soothing, especially when it is of a repetitive nature (e.g., spinning lights, bubble tubes, waterfalls, etc.).
3. Get physical— Physical activity can help to manage anxiety and release tension. Using deep breathing exercises to relax can be helpful as can activities such as yoga and Pilates, which both focus on breathing to relax. Use a visual timetable or write a list to help remind yourself when you need to practice relaxation.
4. Get specialist help— Some adults with ASD are not able to identify their anxiety or to put in place strategies to manage it on their own. A specialist or a counselor with experience of ASD may be able to help you.
5. Keep a diary—Understand the symptoms you display when you are anxious, and try to look at the causes of your anxiety. Keeping a diary in which you write about certain situations and how these make you feel may help you to understand your anxiety and manage it better. Use the diary also to think about the physical changes linked to anxiety. ASD adults often retreat into their particular interest if they are anxious about something. Use the diary to monitor this as well. Here’s an example of a diary entry:
Time and date: 12:00 PM on 3/17/12
Situation: Applied for a job
How I felt: Extremely nervous and self-conscious
How anxious I was (on a scale of 1 to 10): Probably about an 8
6. Have a meltdown prevention plan— Create an anxiety plan when you are feeling positive about things. An anxiety plan is a list of things and situations that cause anxiety as well as solutions and strategies you can use to help manage anxiety levels. The plan can be adapted, depending upon how well you understand anxiety. Here’s an example:
Situation: Getting on the bus
Symptoms of anxiety: Hearts beats fast; sweat and feel sick
Solution: Have stress ball in pocket; squeeze the ball and take deep breaths; listen to my iPod
7. Seek personal accounts— It may help to read the personal accounts of other people who also have Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism, and to see how they dealt with certain situations and managed any anxiety they experienced.
8. Use relaxation techniques— You may find it very difficult to relax. Some adults with the disorder have a particular interest or activity they like to do because it helps them relax. If they use these to relax, it may help to build them into their daily routine. However, this interest or activity can itself be the source of behavioral difficulties at times, especially if they're unable to follow their interest or do the activity at a particular moment.
9. Locate various support groups— Going to a support group for adults with ASD means meeting other people with the disorder, which can be helpful in some cases. Different support groups will offer different activities, from going on outings to discussion groups about particular topics.
10. Talk about your anxiety to someone you trust— Some people find direct confrontation difficult. They may therefore be unable to say they don’t like certain things or situations, which will raise their anxiety levels. Thus, developing “assertiveness skills” is very important for people with ASD. You can research how to develop such skills on the Internet, so we won’t go into that here.
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